Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Moose

Originally published as a series of 14 mini-comics by Oily Comics, Moose tells the story of Joe, a put upon high school student who has to face a relentless, sadistic bully aptly named Jason.
Joe goes to great length to avoid Jason, walking to school instead of taking the bus, eating lunch in closets, trying to stay out of his way, and getting detention for his troubles, but Jason goes to equally great lengths to find Joe and dish out his violence. I found those parts with their confrontations to be especially unsettling and horrific, but there is also a certain brutal realism in how this tale is paced and artistically rendered.

Sporadically, Joe finds solace from this cycle in nature, and there are a few excellent wordless scenes where we are privy to him connecting with nature and having some wondrous, if also scary, experiences.
Joe fantasizes about taking vengeance on Jason, but he really does not think he has has much recourse. I don't want to spoil the way this book ends, but something occurs that gives Joe the upper hand suddenly, and how he uses this opportunity is pretty gut-wrenching. I really liked how gray everyone in this story is eventually painted, with the "good guys" not always seeming so good, nor the bad ones as bad (or at least they have their own troubles, I guess I might say). For what could easily be a two-dimensional story there is some real complexity and depth.
As you can tell from the excerpts, the artwork is pretty stark, with seemingly simple lines packing much emotional punch and also an economy of motion. I felt that the storytelling was excellent in heightening drama, setting scenes, and establishing personalities. Like another Oily Comic I read, TEOTFW, Moose was a visceral and moving reading experience for me.

Moose is the creation of Max De Radiguès, a Belgian comics artist who tweets updates about his works here. He was a 2009 Fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and his newest projects are called Bastard and Rough Age. He speaks more about his comics work, inspirations, and creative process in this interview.

There are sparse reviews for this book as of yet, but the ones I have read have been positive. Alec Berry called it "a well-crafted, chilling read." Rob Clough praised the book, stating that "De Radigues' trembling but clear line and angular character design is perfectly matched to the subject matter." Clough also added that the "characters, though simply-rendered, are lively and bursting with emotion."

This collected volume of Moose was published by Conundrum Press. They have more info about the book here. Because of the brutal language and violence in this book, I would recommend it for mature readers.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pretty Deadly, Volume 1: The Shrike

Pretty Deadly defies easy categorization. It's a sort of mystical western, where fabled animals and reapers of death manifest as humans and have gun- and sword-fights. The overarching framework is that of a butterfly telling a skeletal rabbit a story. 

This story involves an aged, blind gunslinger named Fox escorting a young girl (Sissy) who dresses like a vulture across the west. She is exceptional for some reason, and she is being pursued by a couple of reapers, Deathfaced Ginnie and Big Alice, who have their own agendas.

Also, there is another guy named Johnny Coyote who seems to know a lot about what is happening and who also cavorts with prostitutes. As you can probably tell, there is a lot going on, and much of it takes on dimensions of both myth and spaghetti westerns. I am not going to pretend I caught everything on my first go-round with this book, because there is much to take in, but the tale was intriguing and the artwork gorgeous. Probably the worst thing I can say about this book is that it used montage as a storytelling technique a couple of times, and I found those particular layouts difficult to follow. Otherwise, this book was an enjoyable, brisk reading experience.

Many of the reviews I have seen about this book liken it to Sandman and/or Preacher, and I guess it does have some superficial similarities to both (as in it deals with myth, and it is a western). They also like to remark that this story is remarkable for how much it is not like other comic book narratives. But I think those comparisons and remarks damn this book with faint praise. It may not be like much out there now, but it is not entirely an original type of story. Nor is it exactly derivative of other books out there. It is a pretty original take on a familiar story, told in an interesting and complex way that demands to be revisited.

Pretty Deadly is the creation of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Emma Ríos. Eisner Award nominee DeConnick has written a bunch of comics for various companies, though she is probably best known for her work on Marvel's Captain Marvel and her sci-fi women-in-prison series Bitch Planet. Ríos has done a bunch of work for Marvel as well and is known for the series Hexed. Both creators speak about their work on this series in these interviews (DeConnick, Ríos).

The reviews I have read of this volume have been largely positive. Keith Dooley wrote that they have created a "memorable mythology" that "has the capability to instill both wonder and horror." Phoebe Salzman-Cohen commented that the genre-mashing here was not always that successful though she is still "curious to see what happens in the second set of issues." Lina concluded that "this book just demands a re-read and doesn’t find itself wanting the second go around."

Pretty Deadly is published by Image Comics. These five issues collected here are the only ones out so far. You can read more about the series here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Wicked + The Divine, Volume 1: The Faust Act

The Wicked + The Divine is a comics series from Image, and this volume collects the first five issues. The concept behind it is that every 90 years twelve gods become mortal for two years. During that time, the gods manifest as celebrities, the ultimate in pop stars, and they entice, entertain, entrance, and inspire humanity in various ways. The tagline points to the way this series approaches the ideas of legendary gods and postmodern celebrity: "just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever."
As you can see, these gods bicker, cavort, revel, and carry on in the ways lots of celebrities do. They also have to navigate and contend with the media coverage. The cast is a diverse one, culled from many pantheons. The main players are Luci (Lucifer), who is a hard-edged pop star (like P!nk maybe?); Amaterasu, who is sort of like Britney Spears or Taylor Swift; Baal, a Jay Z or Kanye type, Sakhmet (a catwoman); Odin, who looks like he's in Daft Punk, and the Morrigan, who is the gothest of goths.
The main plot revolves around a murder mystery, with Luci (naturally) being the prime suspect. Her acolyte Laura thinks she is being framed though, and lots of complications ensue when other forces and players enter into the picture. I have to say that I enjoyed the crisp, clean art, the various plot twists, and the cheeky humor, though there are times I feel there is a forced "coolness" (I am old, so I don't know what it's called today) where some of the characters just come off as being insipid jerks.

This book is the creation of Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matthew Wilson. Gillen and McKelvie have many credits in comics, and they have also collaborated on a number of other works, including the creator-owned Phonogram and Young Avengers from Marvel. Wilson has tons of comics credits and also is a host of the War Rocket Ajax podcast. All of the creators speak about their work on this series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have leaned positive but with reservations.  Don Ventura was intrigued but called it "beautiful to look at while being uneven to read." Doug Glassman called it a "love it or hate it" book and wondered if it "would possibly make a better television series than comic book." Jean-Luc Botbyl generally enjoyed it and wrote that the series "has a lot of potential, but definitely has a long way to go."

The Faust Act is available from Image Comics, and they provide more info here. The series is ongoing, and is currently at issue 10. Issue 11 will conclude the storyline began here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Exquisite Corpse

Exquisite Corpse was released in France in 2010, and it was a huge success there. 5 years later, we Anglophones are finally getting to see the book in our language. The main character in this book is Zoe, a young woman who works as a model at car shows. She hates her job because she gets leered at all day, and when she gets home to her stoned and negligent boyfriend things are not much better.
The fanny pack only adds to the creep factor.

One day while eating lunch, she catches the eye of a reclusive man and learns that he is an author. After they meet, she gets drawn into his life, which brings new passion, mystery, and a surprising romantic triangle. I know that this book might sound like a cheesy romantic comedy, but I think it also transcends the genre with its twists and turns. All I can say is that I felt very sucked into the story.
Yipes!

I did find the narrative very compelling and surprising, but the things I love most about this book is its artwork, with its geometric shapes and stylistic figures. Such work is deceptively simple looking, but the elegant lines easily communicate emotion and movement with grace and impact. I also enjoyed the interplay of the coloring, which varied from bright and garrulous to muted and reserved depending on the scene. I found myself lingering over many of the images and going back over them to drink in the linework and colors.

Pénélope Bagieu is an accomplished artist and graphic novelist in France, where she was awarded the high honor Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for her contribution to the world of art and literature. She has drawn many different comics, the most famous being Joséphine, and also had them adapted into films. She is something of a Renaissance woman, active as a musician drumming in a band and also blogging about her many works and travels here (in French). If you are interested in learning more about Bagieu and her work (and why wouldn't you be?), check out this great interview with her at The Mary Sue.

I really enjoyed this book, but reviews I have read have been mixed. Kayla Farber gushed, "I highly recommend this book. It’s so relevant and humorous and poignant." Nick Smith wrote "As I read this book, I was drawn into the story bit by bit and before I knew it I was hooked and when it was over I was sad.  Very sad.  Distraught even that there was no more to be had." Sam Quixote was more negative about the book, stating, "It’s well-drawn and quite well written but plotted like a cheap and trashy romance novel that floats off into fantasy-land by the end." Emily at Pop Kernal also had some reservations and concluded that although "this novel does not reside in my top lists, it was admittedly an enjoyable, light read for a Wednesday night."

Exquisite Corpse was published by First Second, who has a preview and much more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Man, Book 1: The Stranger

Last Man is a combination of European and Japanese comics sensibilities. The art style is a combination of highly detailed and also sketchy, spare imagery. Just check out this gorgeous splash page that opens the book:
And then look at the scene below as a teacher talks to his student in the fighting school.
There is much detail in the backgrounds and settings, but the characters themselves are depicting in simple, elegant lines. I enjoyed the economy used with the figures, as it makes them more open and accessible. Also, even though they appear rather like simple types, they convey lots of different emotions and feelings. And as you can see below, depending on the scene, the artwork also uses manga conventions where the backgrounds suddenly become unnecessary in telling the story:
I think this is a beautifully rendered book, easily accessible for many readers. The story was exactly like that for me as well. The basic plot follows a young boy named Adrian who is finally old enough to compete in the Games, an annual gladiatorial tournament. He is not that skilled a fighter, but he has spirit. In order to compete, each fighter must have a partner, and when Adrian's has to bow out it leaves him unable to register. Coincidentally, a large, rough and tumble guy named Richard Aldana has rolled into town to also compete, and a very unlikely partnership is cast.

Adrian and Richard are very different. Adrian is young and rather innocent, and he wants nothing more than to make life better for him and his single mother, Marianne. Richard is a brute who drinks hard, smokes a lot, and carouses rather than trains. Still, his confrontational fighting style appears to work well in this tournament where all the other fighters use fighting magic to compete.

Aside from the tournament and fighting, both of which I found very engaging and entertaining, there are also a good number of intriguing elements at work here. There is a romantic triangle where Aldana is drawn to Adrian's mom, but Adrian's teacher Mr. Jensen seems to have her attention. There is also the local lord who has a keen interest in the tournament and spies on the players of interest. And not to mention all of the strong personalities of the fighters themselves, as they try to psyche their opponents out as much as physically defeat them.

There is just enough information about the characters, setting, and plot that the story hums along and works cohesively. But what I ended up liking more when I was finished with the book was being able to wonder about a good many interesting questions yet to be answered: What's the point behind the Games? Where is Adrian's father? Where is Richard Aldana from? Why is he so familiar yet unfamiliar with how the Games work? What is Lord Ignacio Cudna's angle on everything?

The three creators behind this book all come from different fields. Balak is a noted animator who also does some digital comics work. Michaël Sanlaville is a video game designer, and Bastien Vivès is an award winning comics artist. All three creators speak about making this book in this interview and also tease about where the series might be heading.

Last Man is already pretty celebrated overseas, awarded the Prix de la Serie at Angoulême this past year. All of the reviews I have read about this book have been positive. Publishers Weekly called this volume "swift and addictive." Jess Costello found some faults within the book but concluded that "for anyone looking for an entertaining book with a vibrant cast and unique outlook on fantasy, this book is an excellent start, and builds the promise that the entire series will follow." Seth T. Hahne added that it is "a vibrant beginning to what I hope will continue to be a vibrant series."

The Stranger is the first in a proposed series of 12 books, 6 of which have already been published in France. The next installment will be out in the US this June. There is also a video game in development to accompany this series that should be out in September.

Because of the situations and very rare strong language (nothing you could not find in a typical YA book) I would recommend this book for upper elementary or middle school readers at the youngest. But I can also say as an adult, I loved reading it, and I am eager for the next in the series.

A preview and much more is available here from Last Man's publisher, First Second.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Nursery Rhyme Comics

Nursery Rhyme Comics follows the formula used by editor Chris Duffy in Fairy Tale Comics and Above the Dreamless Dead, start with some classic source material and get an all-star team of talent to illustrate those classics. I am glad to say that like those two aforementioned books, this one is also quite excellent. It features a bevy of talented artists, 50 in all, many of them well celebrated like Jules Feiffer, Roz Chast, Raina Telgemeier, Kate Beaton, Gahan Wilson, and Gilbert Hernandez.

The artwork is gorgeous and varied in superb manner. I love the multiple styles in here, and also that these nursery rhymes are depicted in punchy, one or two page spreads for the most part. Some of these adaptations are pretty literal:
A rare non-Love and Rockets Jaime Hernandez piece.
Others are set in exotic locales:
This picture just makes me smile.
Others rely on playful re-interpretation:
Dave Roman rules!
And a handful are funny, clever meta-commentaries on nursery rhymes:
Not going to lie. I laughed out loud at this one.
Taken together, this book is a treasure trove of fun, expertly crafted comics. I think it is best savored in small chunks, so that the reader can experience each nursery rhyme on its own terms without creating a blur by binging on these short tales.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have gushed as much as I have here. Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and summed up, "As much as the visual styles may vary, the high levels of wit and invention never falter." Elizabeth Bird wrote that this book "gives kids everywhere a new way of encountering some essential cultural touchstones." Stumptown Trade Review called it "a fun and unexpected delight."

Nursery Rhyme Comics was published by First Second, and they provide a preview and much more here.
I can't stop posting preview pages!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Unflattening

I have to admit that I am good friends with the author of this book, Nick Sousanis, and also that I am lucky enough to be mentioned in the acknowledgements. We have presented at conferences together, hung out, and talked a lot about comics and life. Even so, I feel that if I did not know Nick I would still be saying that Unflattening is a remarkable achievement. It is a book about thought, expression, philosophy, art, understanding, and being in the world. And I am going to have a difficult time talking about, to the point where I will certainly be doing it a disservice. Probably the best way to wrap your head around what it is is to go get a copy (or two, that'd be better for Nick) and read it.

This book does so many things and collects diverse influences such as Maxine Greene, Flatland, Monty Python, John Dewey, The Wizard of Oz, Deleuze and Guattari, Alice in Wonderland, René DeCartes, and Scott McCloud. It combines myth, autobiography, philosophy, art, art criticism, popular culture, and narrative in weaving together a complex tapestry of thought, a reflection on how we enter into the world, relate to it, process it, and try to represent it. He depicts this conversation in 10 chapters, each a visual essay drawn in an attractive, mostly realistic style that reminds me of a combination of Scott McCloud and MC Escher.

Just look at this page where Sousanis gets into explaining how our senses and thinking are both linked and limiting:
Or this one where he gets into how symbols shape how we think, create, and sense the world:


My initial response to this work was simply, WOW. Although I feel that today my words are not up to the task of describing the book, this discussion and response to one of Nick's talks at MIT does a great job of touching on the its aims, background, and ideas.

Sousanis is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. He blogs about his work here, and he also has a new website here. This book was Nick's doctoral dissertation project, and he speaks about it in much depth in this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

All of the reviews I have read about Unflattening have been full of praise. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and called it "Essential reading for anyone seeking to create, critique, or consider the visual narrative form." Brian McGackin concluded his review, "Some people aren't interested in learning, so this book wouldn't be for them, but anyone who is curious, who faces their admitted ignorance with excitement at the possibility of the constant education it implies, they will find joy in Unflattening. We should encourage this type of teaching, because learning should always be this fun." As for my own views, I think that Unflattening is a complex and beautiful book that demands to be read and re-read.

Unflattening was published by Harvard University Press.  They have all kinds of information about the book here.